On Oct. 31, 11 Northern students will participate in a computer programming contest that will pit their intelligence and determination against over 200 different schools as they compete against the clock to try and solve advanced programming problems.
The 34th annual Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest, sponsored by IBM, is broken up into around 30 regional competitions throughout the world, which are then separated into about 16 sites within the region. At these sites, several teams of two or three students attempt to solve a series of complex programming problems in the span of five hours. The scores are tabulated according to region, and the team that completes the most problems correctly region-wide will advance to the World Finals, held in China, in February.
Northern will compete at the Lake Superior State University (LSSU) site, a part of the north-central North American region, alongside LSSU, Algoma University and Michigan Technical University. To advance to the Finals, Northern must not only beat all the teams at their respective site, but must also be the highest scoring team in the North Central, North American region. Each problem the teams solve will be subjected to strict judgment and guidelines.
“The students have to solve as many problems as they can, and they have to be perfect,” said Andy Poe, an associate professor of computer science at NMU and faculty sponsor of Northern’s ACM group. “If you write a program that works 99 percent of the time, that’s a fail. It has to be perfect.”
According to Poe, the teams are looking up to par for an incredibly demanding competition.
“If they get three [of the eight or more questions] correct, they can feel very proud of themselves,” Poe said.
Competitions such as these are beneficial for students in many ways, said Poe.
“This is an opportunity for the students to get to know other peers from different schools, and it is a good mental exercise,” he said. “It’s a good way to practice programming skills without it affecting their grades, and whether you win or lose, it’s about sportsmanship. It’s a great way for them to represent Northern.”
The competitors have been practicing programming regularly both in their computer science classes and in their free time, said Poe.
“We have strategy sessions, and the faculty has been really helpful,” said Cory Perry, a senior computer science and physics major and president of Northern’s ACM student organization. “We even had a staged practicing programming contest.”
Perry agrees that the contest can be challenging and requires both extensive computer science and mathematics knowledge.
“It can be difficult and it depends on your background,” Perry said. “There are some problems that you’re never going to get, but most of the time there’s a few you can, and you’re almost always guaranteed to get one.”
Perry said that it was important to have a mix of computer science and mathematics majors on each team. Sometimes the computer science majors will know how to program something when the math majors wouldn’t but don’t understand the algorithms needed and the math majors do, he said.
Perry is looking forward to competing in his fifth ACM contest.
“You get to hang out with your teammates and talk with them and then afterwards you get to discuss the problems. It’s a lot of fun,” said Perry.